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When Tori Dunlap was 9 years old, her dad showed up with a vending machine that would change the trajectory of her life.
Over the next 8 years, Tori would go on to own 17 vending machines across the city, and the savings she made from running this small business would help pay for her college.
Owning a small business, whether you’re 9 or 19, or 90, can teach important lessons about life, even if your long-term goal is not to be an entrepreneur.
In today’s episode, as Tori shares her story of building this first business, she shares how the lessons she learned as a vending machine mogul translated to real-life skills both in her current business and her time in the corporate world.
What you’ll learn:
The story of Tori’s first business
What being a business owner taught her about advocating for herself in the corporate world
How she’s changed since then and how she runs her business now
Tori Dunlap (00:15):
Hello, everybody. Hello, Financial Feminists. Welcome back. I’m so excited to see you. I am recording this episode after speaking at an event in Fargo, North Dakota. If you are listening from North Dakota, hello, your city was charming. It was adorable. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but here we are. And so I’m a little tired from flying. You’re also getting like me after traveling the whole day. I was going to say after smoking a pack of cigarettes, but I’ve never done that in my entire life. I’ve never smoked a cigarette period. Because I’m a goody two-shoes. So you’re getting like drawl me today, which you’re either going to love or you’re going to hate.
But thanks for being here. If you are a first timer, welcome. Welcome to the show. We’re here to talk about how money affects women differently. And we’re here to fight the patriarchy by making you rich. If you’re an oldie but a goodie, you already know that. Welcome back. Excited to see you. A couple housekeeping things. First of all, the book, Financial Feminist, yes, I’ve written a book, it’s called Financial Feminist Overcome the Patriarchy’s Bullshit to Master Your Money and Build a Life You Love, is available for pre-order literally wherever you get your books. From your favorite independent bookstore, from Amazon, from Books-a-Million, from Barnes & Noble, literally anywhere you get your books. And not just in a hard cover edition, but also in an ebook and an audio book read by me.
It is available for pre-order. I know on Amazon, as of this recording, it’s literally less than $20. And I have worked literally for five years to be able to give you this book. It is super accessible. If you’re not able to afford a copy right now, for whatever reason, contact your library, ask them to make sure to carry a copy.
And I would just so appreciate your support. Pre-orders are so important. One, they validate that people actually want this book. It shows to booksellers that they should stock the book and stock lots of copies so that we don’t run out. It also helps boost our rankings in bestseller lists like New York Times and USA Today. And if you could read my journal, you’ve literally seen me manifest for the last two years that we are not only a New York Times bestseller, but a number one New York Times bestseller. And you pre-ordering a $20 copy of my book is the best way to be able to support our mission and to fulfill not only my dream, but a dream that I’ve had since I was a little kid of not only becoming an author, but maybe someday becoming a published author whose book is read by people all over the world.
We’re going to talk a lot about childhood me today. And so seven year old me wanted to be an author. Nine year old me was an entrepreneur, but I’ll get to that in a second. We so appreciate your support of both the show, Financial Feminist and the book Financial Feminist. We have a link down below. You can pre-order. You can also go to herfirst100k.com/book for all of the places you can order. If you love the show, please leave us a review, share it with your friends. It really helps other people discover the show. And we’re back on the top of the charts y’all. We’ve been at that number one, number two on Spotify’s business charts for a long time. We’ve also been in the top 10 on Amazon. We’ve also been on the top 10 on Apple and it just means the world to us, truly.
I check every single day, usually multiple times a day, on where we are on the rankings. And it always means, yeah, I know I say every time it means the world to me, but it really does. It means the world that you’re enjoying the show and that this show is making an impact on you.
Okay. Today’s episode. Today’s episode. I joke before about the origin story of Her First $100K. In a previous episode, a couple episodes ago, I talked about the Her First $100K origin story of me saving a 100K at 25. But this is the original, original origin story. This is the precursor to Her First $100K and we’re going to talk about the first business I ever owned. I did a lot of things to make random money as a child. I think as we all do, I did the lemonade stand thing. I remember pulling weeds in my Nana’s lawn. I was terrible at it. I barely earned the money she gave me. I did not like yard work.
One of my favorite things was my dad and I, actually, I don’t know if I’ve told the story in the podcast, my dad and I would sneak onto golf courses at 9:30 at night in the summer. And we would get waist deep into the lake on the golf courses and fish the golf balls out. People would hit the golf balls in there. We’d fish them out. And then we would spend a couple hours in the garage, sprucing them up. We had Brillo Pads and we would wipe them down and then sell them on Craigslist. But the thing that really changed my life also involved my dad, and he was the day he came home with a vending machine and a business proposition. So if you’re listening to this episode, you’re probably past the age of starting a business as a kid.
If you plan to have kids, if you have kids in your life, this is a great episode. And also if you’re just interested in the sort of learnings that I had. When I started my business at age nine, I didn’t do anything novel. I didn’t go on Shark Tank. I didn’t invent something, but I learned how to be an entrepreneur. I learned how to pitch myself. I learned how to build my confidence. And especially as a girl, as a young woman, this was incredibly important.
So this episode, I’m going to tell you all about how I started that first business, the good and the bad, and how those principles really helped me build the multi seven figure business I have today. Okay. First of all, the business at age nine thing, I know that this is very rare. I know it’s not normal, but I’m hoping I can leverage this experience into some actionable takeaways for you. Because again, this was so instrumental in both how I built a business as someone in their twenties, into a multimillion dollar business and into me becoming a founder and CEO. But it was also so important for building my confidence as a woman.
And I think a lot of times what unfortunately happens is we raise our boys very different than our girls and boys are built and encouraged to be confident and leaders. And we tell girls to play small all of the time. And one of the most powerful gifts, my parents, especially my dad gave me, was the gift of playing big. So I was always a precocious kid. That shouldn’t probably shock you. I was that kid who, if you assigned her five books to read in the summer, she’d read triple, quadruple the amount just because she wanted to.
And there was literally one day I was sitting in my living room. I was nine years old and I was just sitting there after school. And my dad walked in from work and he put a vending machine in front of me. Now this wasn’t the kind of vending machine where you could buy a Coke, a can of Coke or a bag of Cheetos. This was one of those vending machines where you put a quarter in, you get a handful of candy out. It’s a gumball machine. You’ve seen these probably at an arcade. You’ve maybe seen this, I don’t know why, they’re always at family Mexican restaurants, it’s you can buy a gumball or you can buy Skittles. And he set one down in front of me and he looked at me in the eye. I still remember this like it was yesterday. And he goes, “Do you want to start a business?” And of course, nine year old me who’s precocious as fuck and is just so ready to go is like, “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
And what had happened was one of, my dad’s a salesman and one of his clients, one of his customers, had all these vending machines he was trying to get rid of. My dad bought the machine for a couple hundred dollars and basically loaned it out to me. And I paid him back over a long period of time. Now, the first lesson that I learned in running that business, I got so excited about this prospect of making money and of picking out which candy was going to go in the machine. Now I grew up in Tacoma, Washington. There was a bulk foods store, it’s out of business now. It was called Top Foods. Top Foods was like a kid’s dream. It had that whole bulk section where you could get dry bananas and then you could get chocolate covered raisins and you could get, oh my gosh, I loved the yogurt covered pretzels.
And what happened was, I think it was either that night or maybe a couple nights later, I was like, “Oh my gosh, we have to buy things for the machine. We have to buy candy for the machine.” And my dad, looking back, it’s such a good way to teach kids about money, and Andy Hill on a previous episode, talked about this as well, is my dad offered a piece of advice, which is like, “Hey, don’t you think we should research it first? Don’t you think we should review our options? Figure out which place has the cheapest candy.” And I did not want to do that. I didn’t want to research. I was too excited and I was like, “No, we have to go.” And instead of telling me off or telling me no, my dad said, “Okay, let’s go.”
So we went to Top Foods and we bought a bunch of product. And I remember we spent about $75. And at the time $75 was so much money. It was like, oh my gosh, so much money. And then a couple days later, we just happened to be at Costco. We just happened to be at Costco as a family. And I found all of the same products. And my dad kindly pointed out to me. He was like, “Oh, see, we bought that at Top Foods and it is $3 cheaper here” or “It is, you can get a lot more for a lot less money.” And I had this moment that sunk in that I would not have learned had I not actually done it, had I not actually gone and purchased the product, which was like, “Oh shit. Oh, okay. I should have researched. I should have listened to
my dad.” But I needed to figure that out myself.
That was the first lesson I learned being an entrepreneur was research is very important and being impulsive is probably not a good skill to have. Impulsivity, excitement. Excitement’s great but has to be curbed with smart research, smart decisions, and also listening to other people who may know more than you. So I started my vending machine business with one machine. I think it took probably a year and a half to maybe two years to actually pay my dad back for that original investment. It was not a gift. It was a loan. And then I started building from there and I ended up owning 15 vending machines by the time I graduated high school. And after 11 years of owning my business, I actually sold it when I was 20 to a 10 year old, who also happens to be named Tori. And we will put, if you’re seeing this on the video, we will literally put a photo of her right here. She looks like me. She could be my younger sister.
And I’ll talk more about the power of mentorship and entrepreneurship later in this episode, but absolutely crazy how this world works. Absolutely nuts. And I think really that was the start of me wanting to, of course, not only be an entrepreneur for my own benefit and for my own learning and for my own financial situation, but also the ability to pass that on to somebody else who needed it. And to give that gift to another young girl.
My second lesson as an entrepreneur was really in-depth money management. The best reason to own a small business, whether you’re a child or not, is how much it teaches you about how to manage your money. I was writing checks when I was 10 years old. I was literally, I had a checkbook. I was writing checks when I was 10. And I remember again, Costco, because now I know better, I’m writing checks at Costco. And I remember watching the cashiers look at me and kind of smile. I would literally sit there. My parents taught me how to write a check. And I was writing a check for the products. My parents helped me, taught me how to write a check, but I would literally sit there. And that’s how I paid for my product. Was I wrote a check. I had my first bank account around that same age because I had to have somewhere to put my quarters.
I was literally … It was a quarter vending machine. I was making quarters. I literally sat with my dad and rolled the quarters. Hand rolled them. We hand rolled them for 10, 11 years on the carpet of our family room after we’d go out and do vending once a month. But I knew what profit and loss meant. Not on a huge grand level, but I knew, okay, I can’t expand my business unless I have money to do so. My dad told me that. I couldn’t expand my business until I paid him back. I couldn’t buy another machine until I paid back the cost of the original machine. I couldn’t afford my product the next month, unless I made enough money this month. I remember it was a constant change year over year of what are we going to put in the machines? And I couldn’t afford the more expensive candy like the peanut M&Ms, or the chocolate covered espresso beans, a real thing we did for a while, unless I was making money to afford that.
And now at Her First $100K, with 13 team members and hiring more all the time and a lot more expenses than a quarter vending machine, like a lot more, I’m still learning and growing. But I learned how to do that, I learned how to manage that when I was young and I’m doing that with a lot more ease than I would have if all I ever knew was a W2 income. I didn’t have to manage expenses at a business in my nine-to-five job, but I did in my vending machine business. Now we add of course, things like payroll and flights and leadership development into the mix. But back then it was chocolate covered raisins. And it was the cost of a vending machine. And it was figuring out what product was not only going to sell, but also how I was going to be able to manage my money.
And I learned this as a young kid. I learned that, of course, in addition to running all of the business, my profits went to my college fund. That was a commitment that my parents and I made is my profits went to my college fund and I got to keep, starting in high school, 10% for my own money. And my parents called it mad money. I got to keep 10%. And it was that learning and understanding of, okay, we’re going to save for this thing. We’re going to save for college. And I get to keep part of it to have fun. And then, Ooh, what am I going to spend that 10% on? Am I going to save it for something else that I really want later? Am I going to spend it now? I was learning all of this. I was learning how to manage money. I was learning how to understand how a bank account worked.
[Inaudible 00:15:02] who joined us for a previous episode, he mentioned it all the time. If you can’t manage $1,000, you’re not going to have an easier time managing a $100,000 or $1,000,000. So starting a business at age nine and building those skills as I progressed, it built a financial and business kind of confidence that is important even now.
Okay. Third thing I learned, I learned how to pitch to clients. I learned how to pitch people. When I first started, my dad did most of the pitching. I got to watch a master at work and he did not ever let me off the hook. I still had to talk. And even when I was nine and nervous and didn’t know what to say, I watched him. I watched him say, “Okay, this is Tori. This is what we’re planning on doin
g. Tori, what’s the plan for the business?” And then I would to tell people, and that was always terrifying.
It was always terrifying, but I learned how to pitch it and let me tell you, it was super hard to say no to a cute little nine year old girl. I had that going for me in a way that I don’t have now, but I actually heard no. I heard no quite a bit. And it was always like a kind no, but it was like, “No, we already have vending machines,” or “No, we can’t get that approved.” Or, “Oh, we want a cut of the profit.” I heard that one time. And that, that was okay. I learned how to deal with rejection. It was absolutely adorable for me to hand business owners a contract after pitching my pants off on how I’d clean and service a machine every month, if they would allow me to place it and how all the profits would go to my college fund.
I also heard, no. I heard no. And I had to get really brave. I had to get vulnerable. It’s always hard to hear no. It was especially hard to hear no as a kid, but I learned how to get comfortable with it. Owning a business gives you a certain amount of what I’d call healthy audacity. You learn to ask for what you need and you just wholeheartedly embrace the phrase that my mom loves, which is that “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” There are so many ways that this is carried into Her First $100K and really built that resiliency, including I … If we want to be in a certain publication or featured in a certain press outlet, I am pitching until I get it. You guys may have seen this with the Today Show. I had never been on the Today Show. That was like my last big one in my gauntlet.
I had done Good Morning America. I had done the New York Times. I had done Forbes and BBC and Entrepreneur and all of these incredible outlets most of which I got from pitching. And I just like politely, but just knocked on the Today Show’s door until they let me in. Squeaky wheel got the grease. It was also instrumental in helping me in the corporate world when I was negotiating salary and benefits, when I was putting myself out there for a promotion, when I was maybe applying for the job that was a bit outside of my skillset, but that I knew I was capable of doing.
This leads me to my fourth thing, which is I knew the value of everything about what I was selling. Ask me absolutely anything about three-headed metal Routemaster vending machines and the candy that goes in them. I can tell you what products sell at certain locations. I could tell you which ones didn’t. I could tell you that Hot Tamales stick together so you need to place them in air conditioned locations. I can tell you which way the gears turned in that vending machine. And I could tell you how many M&M’s go in an average handful. The answer is nine. I can tell you the best place to put the vending machine to get the most foot traffic.
I can also tell you the not so fun stuff like which products melt really easily when you put them up against a wall again, without air conditioning, real thing that happened. We were at a physical therapist’s office and all of my chocolate melted. And I spent with my dad, an hour and a half cleaning out the machine. And I can also tell you especially, which products are attractive to rats, but we don’t talk about the disgusting rat incident of 2011. That’s a story for another time. The worst time I had as a business owner, as a young business owner. I learned all of this from experience and I was able to turn that experience into profit.
I knew everything about what I was selling, and this didn’t happen overnight. This took a while. This took a lot of me building my confidence, me building my credibility, me understanding the ins and outs of running my business. Truly understanding what you’re selling, it displays that confidence and that credibility as does truly believing in what you’re selling. And if you understand the ins and outs of your product and you know the best way to not only of course serve your customers, but to also make a profit, well, then you’re going to be able to sell that business easier. That ask is going to be less brutal, less intense.
The same thing goes in the world where the product is you. When you are working in nine-to-five, you’re working for somebody else. What are the metaphorical vending machine stats you know about yourself? How can you fit those into a company’s world and culture? How can you use your skills and all of those stats you know, in order to be successful, in order to better the company? All of the things I just listed, the, how many M&M’s go in a handful? How the machine works, you know the ins and outs of either the company you own or the company you work at. You know what’s going well and you know what needs to be improved. That’s the power of being able to come in and offer that to a company or offer that to a client if you are the company. At HOK, understanding my product made me a better marketer because I understand my audience and what they need. The research I do now is geared towards understanding systemic racism and sexism, inequity and inequality, and so many other factors that make money different for women, for people of color, other minority groups.
I also know how best to show up for my team members. I know their strengths and weaknesses. I know what our community needs. I know who our community is. We literally have a customer persona at Her First $100K. Her name’s Jennifer. She’s 29. She lives in New York. Sh
e makes about $70,000 a year. Her favorite show is Schitt’sCreek. She votes Democrat almost always. [inaudible 00:21:23] really always, and she has tried to find financial education before, but nothing has really clicked for her. She doesn’t like feeling shamed or judged and she’s looking for something different. And your name is probably not Jennifer. And you might not be 29 or live in New York, but I promise you that that’s probably pretty similar to who you are. We figure that out. We know the ins and outs of the company. And understanding those factors greatly influences the kind of education we bring to the table at Her First $100K.
All right. The fifth and final thing. I understood the importance of really good customer service. Your business, especially your first and most especially if you’re a kid, doesn’t have to be anything flashy. Again. I said that. In fact, it actually probably shouldn’t be. Owning a dozen or so many vending machines, yeah, wasn’t anything new. But what set me apart was my customer service. And also again, being a kid and being able to be assertive. I understood that the way to build a business to be profitable and to be successful was through serving others. And I set a standard for customer service. I gave free samples. Often when I would come and service the machines, I would go find cups and I would give free samples of the product to the people at the front desk. The people who ended up being the people who would call me if something was wrong with the machine, because we had built trust with them. They knew my face. They knew my story. They knew who I was, and they also knew that we were on top of it.
I was constantly checking in with them. How are they liking the machine? Was the machine working okay? Is there a particular product that they wanted to see? So this personal connection, as well as of course, my story, encouraged customers to keep coming back. And I hope it’s obvious about how this continues with my work at HOK and in the day to day interactions we have with our community. I mentioned this before, but again, the last bonus piece was just that resilience. I dealt with rejection a lot, and it’s something that we unfortunately all have to get pretty comfortable with. And we can’t take it personally. Because rejection isn’t personal. There will always be people who love your product, but it doesn’t matter how life changing it is, how many stories about people that we’ve impacted, the testimonials, there’s always something negative or even downright nasty said about me, said about our company, said about our products and yeah, it still fucking hurts. Trust me, it hurts, but it doesn’t stop us.
Both the vending machine business that I built when I was nine, that didn’t make a lot of money, but taught me all of these skills and this business now at Her First $100K, has helped me grow exponentially. And part of the story of that first business is that when I went on to college, I sold that business to again, a 10 year old named Tori. And it’s one of the proudest accomplishments I have of my career. Even though I’ve done so many bigger, flashier things. Because I got to pass on some knowledge and opportunity to another little girl who is now a young woman, learning how to build a business and how to build her confidence and how to manage her money and how to also take mentorship and to ask for help from other people.
What an incredible gift and not only that my parents gave me right, that other mentors in my life gave me, but hopefully that I gave to Tori, that Tori now gets to experience. And that’s what we do now with Her First $100K. I’m not selling Her First $100K. We’re not selling our business, but we’re passing on education and we’re helping women see their own power. I’ve talked about it before. I don’t use the word empowering women. I don’t use the word empower because I believe that you already have power. You have incredible power. I don’t need to give you power just like somebody else doesn’t need to give me power. We just need to know how to use it. We need the tools and the strategy and the mentorship and the guidance to be able to use it.
My parents, especially my dad. I had that mentorship and I’m so thankful. And it was such a privilege. How can we either find folks to mentor us, to ask for help and or find those mentors in our life? How can we use our skills to level up our lives, to play bigger and to also pass those skills onto somebody who needs it? I end every single workshop at Her First $100K and again, if you’ve taken a workshop you know, I try to end every single workshop with a plea that if you have this information, if you have this information around investing, around building a business, around paying off debt, then you now have a responsibility to not only use that information. Don’t be a passive observer. Don’t be a passive consumer, but to actually use that information to change your own life. But you also have the responsibility to pass that information on to others. If you go to our About page on Her First $100K, you see the quote “With privilege comes responsibility.”
I had an incredible amount of privilege and an incredible amount of support from my parents who gave me this gift of entrepreneurship when I was so young and I was able to pass that on to somebody else and to use those skills now to employ people to build our larger business, to both take care of myself and to hopefully work, to give you resources, you can use to change your life. We just need to know how to use that power. And sometimes it comes from listening to podcasts like this that bring education and important matters, or maybe you’re following along on TikTok or Instagram. Maybe you’re reading a book. Maybe you’re just shadowing somebody. But that’s the power of using our skillset to not only better our own life, but to better other people’s.
And if there’s one thing I took from my entrepreneurship journey, it’s that it could absolutely change my life, build my skill set, make me resilient, make me good at managing money. Make me really good at connecting with our customers, but I could also use those skills to change somebody else’s life. I could also pass along those skills to somebody who really needed it and pass on those skills to someone who looked remarkably like me and who also had my same name 11 years before. Oh, it makes me a little teary. It makes me so excited. I mean, yeah, it’s a full circle moment for me. And I’m just so honored as always that I get to do the work that I do now and that this podcast exists because I’m trying to do the thing. I’m trying to pass along this information in the hopes that it really does change your life.
If you love this episode, feel free to share it. Feel free to share it with a woman in your life. Maybe if you have children or you mentor children, have a conversation with them and use these strategies, use these skills. Because a 28 year old me is using them every day. And I think you could probably use them as well. Thank you so much for being here as always. Thank you for listening and I’ll catch you later.
Thank you for listening to Financial Feminist, a Her First $100K podcast. Financial Feminist is hosted by me, Tori Dunlap, produced by Kristen Fields, marketing and administration by Karina Patel, Olivia Coning, Cherise Wade, Alena Helzer, Paulina Isaac, Sophia Cohen, Valerie Oresko, Jack Cohen and Ana Alexandra. Research by Ariel Johnson. Audio engineering by Austin Fields. Promotional graphics by Mary Stratton. Photography by Sarah Wolfe and theme music by Jonah Cohen Sound. A huge thanks to the entire Her First $100K team and community for supporting the show.
For more information about Financial Feminist, Her First $100K, our guests, episode show notes and our upcoming book also titled Financial Feminist visit herfirst100k.com.